Sony MDR-NC500D Digital Noise
Canceling Headphones part 1
Is the promise of 'digital' noise
canceling matched by the reality?
An attractive and classic design, only slightly
different to the lower priced MDR-NC60, with the addition of
the 'magic' word (it must be magic - it adds enormously to
the price) 'Digital' to the outside of the headphones.
Part 15a of a series on noise
reducing headphones - click the links on the right for extra
reviews and commentary.
part 1 of a two part review. Part 2
reviews the MDR-NC500D
headphones in actual use and rates
them for sound quality, noise cancelling, and other issues.
If you've ever wondered just
what a $400 pair of noise cancelling headphones offers that a
$100 pair does not, read on to find out.
But if you want to skip the
verbiage and cut to the bottom line, the short answer to the
question 'What extra do I get for all my extra money?' is, alas,
'not very much'. Again, read on to find out.
These are good headphones -
possibly even excellent ones. But they're not appreciably
better than the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 headphones, while costing
Sony MDR-NC500D Digital Noise
Canceling Headphones -
what you get
The Sony MDR-NC500D noise
cancelling headphones come in an impressively large box.
Opening the box causes one to be greeted by a pile of paperwork,
and after impatiently pushing that to one side, one then
encounters the hard sided protective carry pouch for the
headphones and a strap that can be attached to the pouch should
one wish to carry it slung over one's shoulder.
Unzipping the carry pouch
reveals the headphones in all their glory, along with some
accessories. On the left half of the carry pouch is a three part
soft pouch with
a fold-over velcro flap; inside this are two AA batteries in one part, a
1/8" to 1/4" adapter in the middle part, and a double prong
(airline) adapter in the third part.
On the right half of the
carry pouch are the
headphones themselves, plus a bewildering variety of plugs and
wires and things, all neatly velcroed into spaces in the pouch.
Sorting everything out
reveals the following items :
The headphones themselves
A multi-voltage recharger for
the rechargeable Li-Ion batteries in the headphones
A long (5') connecting cable
with standard mini stereo jacks at both ends that are iPhone
A short (20") connecting
cable with standard mini stereo jacks at both ends that are
A connecting cable with an
auxiliary battery box in the middle of it and with standard
mini stereo jacks at both ends (iPhone compatible) plus a power jack to go into
the headphones as well. There is 16" of connecting
cable between the box and the plug that would go into an
audio source, then the box, then 42" (3'6") from there to
the connectors that go into the headphones
The paperwork with the
headphones comprises :
A single sheet on how to
select the Noise Cancellation Mode
A single sheet startup guide
A booklet about noise
canceling - 14 pages in English, repeated in French, German,
Spanish, Italian and Portugese. This is a rather
complicated and technical booklet and clearly written by
someone who does not speak English as their first language;
it interesting to read for
those of us who are fascinated by such things, but not
necessary for the average end-user to digest and comprehend,
especially those of us who are intimidated by reading statements like
TNSR = 10 log (P/P0)
[this formula is a fancy way of saying 'The total noise
suppression ratio is the difference between the noise with
and without the headphones on']
A large fold-out sheet of
A single sheet warranty form
A single sheet of
precautionary notes and warnings
The headphones have a one
year warranty and are priced at $400 (with no discounts
currently being offered by any retailers). They are
and many other stores.
The Sony brand of course
needs no introduction, although it is fair to say that Sony's
earlier reputation for leadership and excellence has been less
prominent in recent years. Who here has a Mini-disc
player, for example? Chances are you don't even know what
it is, let alone own one (or, if you did, it has long since
fallen into disuse). And its lackluster eBook reader with
a limited range of overpriced titles is definitely a poor cousin
Kindle eBook reader.
After Sony's leadership role
with its long-lived Walkman series of first cassette players and
then CD players, it stumbled and - to date - although it has a
broad range of MP3 players, it has never been able to build any
type of leadership position with the MP3 players that knocked
the Walkman off its perch and has languished as an 'also ran' in
But perhaps - after its
embarrassing defeat, decades ago, when its superior Beta
videotape format lost out to the inferior VHS format - Sony is on
the rebound, with its Blu-ray Disc format winning out over the
competing HD DVD format in early 2008. Could it be that
Sony is moving to the front of the pack of innovative consumer
electronics leaders once more, and is this - the first ever set
of digital noise cancelling headphones - an example of its
Leader again or not, Sony
remains a major
player with consumer electronics, and offers a wide range of
noise cancelling headphones in all three design styles :
released in 2003, now way obsolete but still
offered for sale
On the ear -
comparable to Plane Quiet NC6
(now superseded by NC7)
On the ear
On the ear
In the ear
On the ear
The MDR-NC500D's claim to fame
- Digital Noise Cancelling
The big claim to fame of
MDR-NC500D headphones, and the justification for their
astronomical and ridiculously high price, is their digital noise
Sony make the rather bold
statement "For this development, Sony put in all of its
acoustical analysis technology, digital signal processing
technology and transducer technology." A little further in
their notes they perhaps unwittingly reveal that both the A/D
codecs and the digital signal processing (DSP) chip are actually
made by Texas Instruments (and neither of these components are exactly new,
either). What this implies for 'all of Sony's technology'
is something we can only conjecture about...
Sony's sost for the digital
noise processing feature
Oh - and the extra cost for
going from an analog to a digital based noise cancelling system?
Who knows the prices Sony pays for the chips from
TI, but probably in total, for two A/D codecs and one DSP per
set of headphones, this is about a $11 cost, and these two
components may also
possibly be saving some of the need to include other analog
components - ie, the actual net extra cost of the digital
capabilities is something under $11.
We estimate the total
manufacturing cost of these headphones to be in the order of
$40. So why sell something that costs $40 for $400?
In part, naked corporate greed. In other part, the
phenomenon known by marketeers as 'positive pricing parity' -
the situation where gullible consumers assume that a more
expensive product 'must' be better than a less expensive one.
The digital noise cancelling
Sony uses the digital
processing to create an interesting twist on active noise
cancellation. You might be familiar with some types of
amplifiers or MP3 players that allow you to choose a type of
acoustic for the music that you hear - perhaps called 'concert hall', or
various other names, for example, and the style you choose
alters the acoustic of the music - making it richer or thinner,
with more or less reverberation. Well, think the opposite
of this - with Sony's digital noise cancelling, you can specify
an environment - either 'Plane', 'Bus/Train', or 'Office' - and the
headphones will adjust their noise cancelling to suit the
expected type of noise in that environment.
Or, if you prefer, just
leave the headphones set to automatic and they will
automatically decide which is the best of the three profiles to
Sounds amazing, doesn't it.
But is this truly a ground breaking new
innovation? Or a gimmick?
It is more of a gimmick
than anything else. Sure, it gives Sony a unique claim, an
ability to claim some special cleverness, and some fancy graphs
to include in their manual and on the outside of the box, but in
terms of extra functionality, it is a nonsense.
The thing about noise
cancelling is that all extraneous noise is bad noise. The best form
of noise cancelling is one that simply detects any and all
and cancels it, whether it be high, mid or low frequency.
Why limit the noise
Sony's noise cancelling curves
for the three different noise cancelling modes each
show that they variously are better than the other curves in
some places and not as good in others. But why wouldn't
you want to take the best parts of all three curves and combine
As you can see from Sony's
chart, profile B provides the best low frequency cancellation,
profile A the best mid frequency cancellation, and profile C the
best upper frequency cancellation. But why force us to
choose between these three - why not give us a profile 'D' that
has the best of all three other profiles - one that runs along
the left side of B, then the mid part of A from where it
intersects with B to where it intersects with C, then the right
side of C?
Unless there's some sort of
limitation on 'total noise cancelling', it would seem to make
best operational sense to just have the one noise cancelling
profile that kills as much unwanted noise as possible.
This might, of course, not sound as sexy in the marketing
materials as does the concept of three different profiles and
either automatic or manual selection of the 'best' profile.
But surely the very best of all profiles is the one which
cancels the most of all background noise.
Read more in Part 2
In Part 2 we
evaluate the MDR-NC500D and rate their functionality compared to other models
of noise canceling headphones, and advise if you should buy a
pair or not.
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26 Dec 2008, last update
26 Aug 2018
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